Looking at the shape of the art world's character today, there is one aspect that clearly stands out. Modern art's trajectory, which remains centred in Northwestern Europe and the United States, is experiencing a shifting of axis. Countries long exempt from participation, such as Turkey, are eager to establish themselves as players in the art industry.
Several art centres, museums and galleries of merit have opened their doors in Turkey over the last decade – and this trend seems to be growing. These institutions have done much to expose Turkey’s tradition of modern art, centred in Istanbul.
Notable among these include the art and cultural complex called SantralIstanbul which recently held a magnificently curated retrospective of 76-year-old Turkish artist Yüksel Arslan. Living in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid censorship of the socialist and satirist themes of his works, which focus on the working class, the artist returned to Turkey in 2009 for a seven-month show.
In May 2010, a new gallery space, Rampa, hosted a large show of works by Cengiz Çekil, the artist credited with establishing conceptual art in Turkey, whose work reflects the political and social tensions before the 1980 military coup. Another gallery of note, BAS, recently featured a display of magazines and works by KORÝDOR, a group of artists who worked between 1988 and 1995. It is only now that many of these artists’ works have been seen in mainstream outlets in Turkey.
However, this movement is still small. Only recently have these forums for artistic cultivation and dissemination begun to appear as the Turkish public begins to embrace its artistic movements.
Considering the greatest achievements in modern art in the West, it's obvious that artists who radically threatened established societal and cultural values were the ones who made the most important contributions.
Western artists like Germany’s Joseph Beuys, regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, challenged the idea that art must be confined to the making of objects. He developed the idea of "social sculpture" and saw society itself as complicated artwork which everyone takes part in creating. For example, to raise eco-consciousness and social change, Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany with the help of volunteers. A basalt stone accompanied each tree, collectively creating a sculpture entitled “7000 Oaks”.
Likewise, a group of Turkish artists and writers used modern art to challenge the murder of the Editor-in-Chief of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Hrant Dink, a proponent of human rights. Creating a life-size work of art, the artists covered themselves in newspaper and lay down in the street where Dink was shot to protest his death and the controversy surrounding his newspaper’s coverage of Turkish society’s views on the Armenian deaths in 1915 by Ottoman forces.
But to understand the recent interest in Turkish modern art, one must first examine the country's recent history.
The last military coup in Turkey was in 1980. The military, which staunchly protects Turkey’s secular political system, employed violent methods, such as threatening journalists and assassinating left-wing intellectuals in order to maintain the secular system during the years leading up to and following the 1980 coup. With no space to challenge the status quo, Turkey’s modern art scene remained underground for a long time.
Since the founding of the Republic, Turkish society has neither had the opportunity nor the outlet to be openly critical of the military state. The Republic continued the Ottoman programme of supporting art primarily as a tool to reinforce national sentiment. This is evident in the large number of commissioned portraits and statues of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
However, in part due to new policies related to Turkey's EU bid and greater global exposure through the Internet, the last decade has seen the emergence of a society more open to dialogue and debate about various social and political issues. Turkish society is now more willing to confront its brutal past. Topics that were never permitted to be discussed are now open for debate.
Here I see the greatest hope for the emergence of a more open Turkish society, one that works towards a vibrant open future. And, thanks to an environment more conducive to open dialogue, there now appears a foundation for interesting Turkish modern art to flourish.
* Mark Van Yetter is an artist and Director of Marquise Dance Hall, an independent art space in Istanbul. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).